COMMENTARY - JON ASHER: WHEN IT IS TIME TO SAY IT IS OVER
We have reached the end of Pro Stock’s viability as a category of competition. It’s time for NHRA to face reality and announce that 2017 will be the last year the class will be part of the Mello Yello series.
I’ll repeat what I’ve written many times before: Pro Stock has been, without question, one of my favorite categories of competition. I may not know a carburetor – or a fuel injector, for that matter – from an intake valve, but I know good racing when I see it, and what NHRA is putting out on the track is anything but good. It’s disastrous, meaningless and continues to be boring as hell. Small wonder that the fans continue to desert the stands in massive numbers when the cars come rolling out of the staging lanes. They’ve learned there’s more excitement back in the pits, waiting in the hot sun for an Alexis DeJoria autograph, than can be found on the track when Pro Stock is running.
The NHRA would have you believe that Detroit has a solid interest in the class, but it’s simply not true. Respected journalists who have spent time with the performance guys from Chevrolet have been told in no uncertain terms that they could care less about the category. Their primary interest are the COPO Camaros and other vehicles built specifically for drag racing. Dodge reportedly has minimal interest in the class and would prefer to see their new high-end Hemi cars competing in some sort of heads-up Factory Stock-type category. And Ford? They announced their formal withdrawal from professional drag racing a long time ago, so it would appear the only ones intent upon keeping the class going are the handful of remaining competitors – and NHRA.
The fans know a bad show when they see one – and let’s forget using that word “show.” There is no “show” in Pro Stock. If there were, people would watch it. They demonstrate their feelings by leaving. Doesn’t anyone in authority get that?
I have great respect for the men and women who compete in the class now, and competed in it in the years and decades gone by. They were totally dedicated to being the best they could be then, and remain so now. Certainly there have been times when they’ve been their own worst enemies, and had to be forced into changing as they were last year when they reversed the way they parked their cars so that the engines faced the fans. But even then there were those that discounted the fans in favor of secrecy. It was amazing to see tool boxes sprouting Lebron James-like legs so the boxes effectively blocked any view of the engine, but that changed with the arrival of Fuel Injection.
In reality FI should have come into Pro Stock at least 10 years ago. According to answers.com, carburetors vanished from production cars worldwide in the late 80s. Arguing against going the FI route for fear of a massive cost increase, the racers “won” the right to stay with carburetors, thereby proving how out of touch with reality they – and NHRA -- were. By continuing to run ancient technology nobody could tout the sophistication of the cars with a straight face, and as the universally respected and admired former GM drag racing honcho, Fred Simmonds, said on more than one occasion to the NHRA brass, “How many Pontiacs do you think we’re selling these days with ‘mail boxes’ on the hood?”
…once the word “pro” is lettered on your car you’re in show business more than you are in drag racing.
Another factor that kept fuel injection at bay was an aftermarket manufacturer’s sponsorship of the Pro Stock Challenge. In essence, his company “bought” two things with that sponsorship -- legality for his then-banned carburetors and a promise that fuel injection wouldn’t be introduced as long as his sponsorship lasted, or at the very least, he’d have enough advance notice to be able to bring an appropriate product to market.
The blame for the at-light-speed-approaching-demise of the class can be largely placed on the shoulders of the National Hot Rod Association, with an equal measure of finger-pointing going to the competitors themselves. Acknowledging that nothing ever stays the same, and change is going to come regardless of any efforts to hold it in check, a number of “changes” that have come to Pro Stock should have been given more careful scrutiny before they were allowed to happen.
The “new” wheelie bar rules were supposed to have the cars leaving the line with the front end up as high as it gets with many late model Super Stock cars, but that never happened because a few drivers whined that if they left with the wheels up the cars would instantly turn right or left and crash. So the rule was modified to mollify, with the result being more glued-to-the-ground “leaves” that are less exciting than watching paint dry.
What far too many of today’s competitors don’t seem to grasp is that once the word “pro” is lettered on your car you’re in show business more than you are in drag racing. It’s all about the show, and if there’s no “show,” no one’s going to watch. Why pay someone to race in front of empty grandstands?
It hasn’t helped matters that a handful of participants actually told a senior NHRA official that, in so many words, “We’re just a bunch of rich guys trying to have some fun, so don’t mess with our class, and let us do what we want.” If there’s a greater disconnect between what these guys think and the reality of spectator-driven drag racing, we can’t imagine it.
If you’ve followed the history of Pro Stock – the real history, not the NHRA version in which they created the entire category out of whole cloth – you’ve witnessed a cost escalation the likes of which can be duplicated only by a defense contractor with a government contract in hand. If you were decrying the costs of racing in the early days, you must be howling like a wolf today – and nobody’s listening. Is the Pro Stock “show” (we’re utilizing quote marks here and throughout the remainder of this screed because, as stated above, there is no “show” in Pro Stock) enhanced by $18,000 shock absorbers? Yeah, we know. You don’t have to buy those $18,000 shocks, you can rent ‘em for about $1,000 per weekend. Do $18,000 shock absorbers do anything to improve the “show?” Uh, no., and please don’t suggest that these shocks help keep the tires gripping the track because, well, that has nothing to do with the “show.” Maybe if the rear tires broke loose and the car start fishtailing around there might be a “show.”
Now that rev limiters have been deployed to keep the engines under 10,500 RPM you might think there’s no longer a need for $8,000 sets of valves to handle the spin, but if anyone’s gone to something less expensive we haven’t heard about it.
Sure, we could go on and dissect every piece of hardware utilized in Pro Stock, but there’s no need, because you get what we’re talking about – and we haven’t even mentioned those quarter million dollar rearend housings. You can buy a damn nice house for what it would cost to build and race a Pro Stock car for a single season – and there’s no earthly reason for it to cost that much. More expenditures have absolutely not improved the non-existent “show,” and apparently there are some competitors who agree because they’re staying home.
Of the 12 races contested thus far in 2016 only five attracted a full field of 16 entries. And there weren’t 17 cars, or 20 or 25, just 16 (other than Norwalk, which pulled in the year’s best with 18 entries). As far as we can see there’s been only one completely new entry this year, and that’s the used Ford being run by Charlie Westcott, Jr. Unfortunately, Westcott’s arrival is being matched by the departure, i.e., retirement, of V. Gaines, who’s words upon quitting almost matched those of George Marnell when he quit some years back. Marnell opined, “I don’t mind spending a million dollars a year to have fun, but I’m not having any fun.” As near as we can tell Gaines competed in 458 races over 22 years, winning just four times. There’s not a lot of fun in that.
Worth mentioning is that Pro Mod, still technically considered an “exhibition” category by the unenlightened sanctioning body, attracted a low car count of 23 and a high of 29 entries in the six events they’ve thus far been a part of this year. Why are there more cars running in Pro Mod? The answers vary from owner to owner, but among them are the lower overall costs of competing and the genuine thrill of driving cars that are markedly quicker and faster than a Pro Stock car, and that margin of difference isn’t even close. The Pro Mods are almost 50 MPH faster and almost a full second quicker and yes, they put on a real show, with wild burnouts, unpredictable wheelstands and then they sometimes sashay through the lights sideways – or even on their tops!. You can’t ask for more than that from a doorslammer.
Just in case you’re thinking Pro Mod will replace Pro Stock on the calendar, think again. Pro Mod is a pay-to-play eliminator, i.e. J&A Service, or some other entity, is paying NHRA for the privilege of competing, and as long as Glendora is making money on an eliminator they’re unlikely to shelve that revenue and replace it by paying out dollars.
Detroit hates Pro Mod because it features cars long gone from the showroom floor, and they’re all about selling what’s available now, which is understandable. At Norwalk, for example, of the 27 entries only three were listed as current. Five others are labeled 2015 models, with 15 others showing model years from the 60s, with the remaining few showing model years from the Aughts. That isn’t exactly what Detroit wants to see.
The NHRA learned a harsh and expensive legal lesson with their ill-timed and executed, but justified, killing off of Pro Stock Truck, so they’re unlikely to repeat that fiasco, but the time to act is now. If the NHRA weren’t afraid they’d be writing and re-writing the draft of their class cancellation announcement, which should come no later than Monday, July 11th, the morning following the Chicago race. The class should continue through the 2017 season, grinding to a halt at the end of the AAA Finals in Pomona. With almost 18 months of preparation no competitor can possibly feel taken advantage of, although I’ll wager a lot of them will be super-pissed, but there’s no “rule” that says a class has to remain active when no one cares to watch it.
Should Factory Stock replace Pro Stock? That would seem to be the logical move, but there are justifiable concerns that the cars, in their current configurations, just aren’t fast enough. But the key words here are “Factory” and “Stock.” Yes, Martha, you can buy one of these cars through your local dealer, so when you’re watching them run you can think to yourself, “Wow! I could do that!” and really mean it.
In order to make Factory Stock work there would have to be a set of reasonable and easily enforceable rules, but unfortunately, when NHRA met with reps from GM, Ford and Dodge in Detroit they couldn’t come to an agreement on much of anything, so here we are, with the classes almost totally made up of Mustangs and Camaros, with nary a Dodge in sight. So don’t blame NHRA for this situation. They tried. Blame it on a recalcitrant OEM manufacturer so intent upon having a competitive edge that everyone’s suffering from their obstinance.
Simplistically, if there’s steadily decreasing interest in a class from the fans, who continue to demonstrate their “interest” by leaving, as well as from the sponsors (there are only one or two “real” corporate backers involved), why keep running it? For tradition? Tradition doesn’t pay the bills.
Just ask a track operator if, given the choice, he’d rather hire in the likes of Del Worsham and Ron Capps for a two-out-of-three match race, or the 8 biggest “names” in Pro Stock, and you’ll have your answer – and we’ll bet he’s not going for the Pro Stock deal. As one very astute drag racing observer put it, “Heck, I wouldn’t take the Pro Stock show even if it was 16 cars. I’d be wasting my money.”